What to Say to Your Supporters Right Now
What’s the appropriate language for me to use? Is it crass to fundraise now?
We’ve been inundated with questions from our clients and friends in the nonprofit community about how to message their supporters in light of the social upheaval created by the coronavirus. Our advice has been what we tell them in other circumstances — think about how you would talk to a family member. If you’ve told your supporters that they’re a part of the nonprofit’s “family,” (and you probably have) then speak to them like one.
That said, we wrote the following message and sent it out to Turnkey’s clients as an example. Some have adopted the tone, while others have used parts of it pretty much in toto. Please feel free to use however it may suit you.
These are troubled times.
I’m reaching out to you today because you’re a caring, compassionate member of the [XYZ organization] community. Without your support, we would accomplish nothing. Usually when I write to you, I tell you about the great things that you make possible to [organization’s mission]. Or I ask for your support, or your time.
Although what you do is critically important to [tens, hundreds] of thousands of people, I want to talk about none of that today. Because as important as I know the [XYZ organization] family is to you, now is a time that we all must take care of our families in our homes. Our parents, our children, our sisters and brothers.
Until we get through the crisis that has been created by the coronavirus pandemic, that must be our focus. Now is a time we should concern ourselves first and foremost with our own health and safety, and that of those whom we love.
You can be assured that the work of [XYZ organization] will go on. That’s because our community is made up of people like you. I know that you are committed to [nonprofit’s mission] no matter what. In good times and bad, I know you’re with us. That’s what makes you special.
I will be in touch again soon to bring you up to date on what’s happening with [XYZ organization]. But for now, please take care of those you hold dear.
[individual, not the organization]
P.S. — If I can be of help to you in any way, please let me know.
Research has shown that people can become more callous to the needs of others in a crisis. For nonprofits, the effect of the need to take care of one’s primary group (family) while at the same time being committed to a nonprofit mission can create what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” In this case, the dissonance is caused by the competing priorities of supporting immediate family versus the organization or mission. One way that people will resolve this dissonance is by diminishing the importance of the nonprofit’s mission. Most, if not all, will indeed choose their immediate family needs over those of the nonprofit or cause. We want to avoid pushing constituents into a choice between immediate needs and the nonprofit, which will likely result in the constituent resolving dissonance by deciding that that XYZ organization “isn’t that important.” That idea can persist over time resulting in long-term diminished engagement.
This is a “giving permission” message. It is intended to affirm the reader’s commitment to the organization, while at the same time permitting them to act in a way that protects themselves and their immediate family. It is permission to (for the time being) focus on themselves. The message thanks them for being a member of the nonprofit’s community and positions them to contribute more in the future.
It says to the reader, “take care of yourself.” In our lives, the people who tell us that are those who genuinely care about our well-being. They are trusted by others. People want to reciprocate those feelings of trust to those who speak to them in this way. This type of message is intended to help to strengthen affinity for the organization by recognizing the reader’s situation.
The P.S., or the “second first sentence,” as copywriters call it, is a personal offer to provide assistance. Again, this is the language of a trusted other.
A message in the form of a survey might be sent as a follow-up. The purpose of this survey is different from most surveys, however. The actual responses are unimportant. The survey is intended to accomplish what psychologists refer to as “priming” the reader. To remind them of their commitment to the organization. Something like this:
We’d like to know how you think the coronavirus will affect [XYZ organization]. Please check the statements that you agree with below:
- Despite the coronavirus, the work of [XYZ organization] is important and needs to continue.
- [XYZ organization] provides me with a sense of community.
- Despite the coronavirus crisis, I’m still committed to [XYZ organization].
Thank you for taking the time to give us your thoughts!
Within 24 hours of receiving the survey, a response is sent. One that thanks them for the information, provides an update on the activity of the nonprofit, (something specific — “because of you…”) and asks them to participate by donating, volunteering, etc.
Participation in nonprofit missions is good for people psychologically. In some ways, the crisis may enhance people’s desire to “do good.” The pandemic will make people feel powerless, which leads to stress. Research has shown that engaging in prosocial behavior helps people reduce stress. Future appeals should emphasize the tangible (positive) outcomes that their engagement and support make possible, giving them a sense of empowerment. The use of BOY messages (“Because of you…”) may be especially effective.
For many people, participating in nonprofit missions are the most meaningful parts of their lives. When we do it right, it gives them the opportunity to be the best person they can — a healer, protector, advocate or hero. They can be the person whom they really want to be. The coronavirus won’t change that.
Katrina VanHuss and Otis Fulton have written a book, Dollar Dash, on the psychology of peer-to-peer fundraising. Click here to download the first chapter, courtesy of NonProfit PRO!
Katrina VanHuss is the CEO of Turnkey, a U.S.-based strategy and execution firm for nonprofit fundraising campaigns. Katrina has been instilling passion in volunteer fundraisers since 1989 when she founded the company. Turnkey’s clients include most of the top thirty U.S. peer-to-peer campaigns — Susan G. Komen, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the ALS Association, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, as well as some international organizations, like UNICEF.
Otis Fulton is a psychologist who joined Turnkey in 2013 as its consumer behavior expert. He works with clients to apply psychological principles to fundraising. He is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit messaging. He has written campaigns for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The March of Dimes, the USO and dozens of other organizations.
Now as a married couple, Katrina and Otis almost never stop talking about fundraising, volunteerism, and human decision-making – much to the chagrin of most dinner companions.
Katrina and Otis present regularly at clients’ national conferences, as well as at BBCon, NonProfit Pro P2P, Peer to Peer Forum, and others. They write a weekly column for NonProfit PRO and are the co-authors of the 2017 book, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising." They live in Richmond, Virginia, USA.